Hoodlums bullying Bhansali is only the latest example of the state abetting intolerance
Are we fast reaching that point in the world’s largest democracy where freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution is subject to the level of intolerance of any pressure group willing to resort to violence to enforce its writ? This question acquires fresh relevance following the attack on film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali by members of the Rajput Karni Sena ­ the same group that had protested against Ashutosh Gowariker‘s 2008 film Jodhaa Akbar.Bhansali was shooting at the Jaigarh fort near Jaipur for his film on fabled Chittorgarh queen Padmavati.The Karni Sena hoodlums felt that he was portraying `their’ queen Padmavati in an unfavourable light.Hence, its outraged `sainiks’ felt they had the right to slap him and vandalise the set. The film director has decided now not to shoot in Rajasthan.

There has been not a word of condemnation of this incident by chief minister Vasundhara Raje who is, no doubt, aware that the Rajputs are a powerful vote bank. Nor have any of the attackers been arrested. Instead, an unnecessarily contrite Bhansali has meekly clarified that his film does not contain anything that will hurt the sentiments of the Karni Sena.

The Sena was particularly angry about a so-called dream sequence in the film where Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji were to be shown romantically. Both Bhansali and the producers of Padmavati, Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, have clarified that there was no such dream sequence in the film to begin with.

But matters have not ended here.Notwithstanding Bhansali’s apologetic clarifications, the Sena has asked that the name of the film be changed, and the final product subjected to a pre-release screening to obtain its clearance. Surendra Jain, general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has dared Bhansali to shoot his film in any other part of the country or to release his film.

Akhilesh Khandelwal, a BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh, has gone further. He has issued something akin to a fatwa, where anybody who performs the pious duty of throwing a shoe at Bhansali will be given an award of Rs 10,000. Expectedly, Union minister Giriraj Singh has jumped into the fray by saying that Padmavati was being shown in a bad light only because she was a Hindu.

The fact that stares us in the face is the near abdication of the state.Governments are mandated to maintain law and order, and to protect the citizen from criminal violence or intimidation. But, as we saw earlier in the case of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) threat against Karan Johar’s film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil , the state becomes a complicit spectator.

MNS leader Raj Thackeray issued a firman that multiplexes showing this film will be vandalised because one of the actors, Fawad Khan, was a Pakistani. The threat was issued openly and with impunity. The Maharashtra government, instead of acting immediately against such thuggery, merely twiddled its thumbs.

Secondly, such incidents are notable for the capitulation of the victim.After being slapped around by the Karni Sena, the producers of Padmavati sent a cringing assurance to their tormentors that they would do nothing to hurt their sentiments. No criminal cases were filed or apologies sought. Instead, the best that Bhansali could offer was to say that he will not shoot in Rajasthan.Similarly, Karan Johar was happy to sit with Raj Thackeray and placate him while Devendra Fadnavis, chief minister of Maharashtra who is meant to act against those who break the law, smilingly mediated.

While the perpetrator and the victim make their unacceptable compromises, what are the rest of the people supposed to do? Wait for the next act of intimidation and watch the passive culpability of the state? This is a frightening situation. When the first violation is not stringently opposed other groups are emboldened to act similarly, if for nothing else than the disproportionate publicity they get.We saw this in the attacks against Dalits and Muslims by self-anointed gau-rakshaks or cow vigilantes, whose actions seemed too to have implicit state sanction.

Democratic empowerment is leading hitherto quiescent constituencies to question the socially powerful. History has both a conventional chronology and a subaltern perspective. In any case, no one group in the country has an absolute monopoly on historical narratives, and this is best illustrated by multiple versions of the Ramayana.There is, rightfully, a new aggression in matters of gender equality that cannot be swept away by mechanically quoting the past. Change is afoot, and among Muslims too, where many new voices refuse to kowtow to the outdated orthodoxies of mullahs.

When these new contestations take place, challenging the self-righteous hegemony of the powerful, will the state stand up for the law or align itself with the perpetrators? Will those who believe they can use violence to silence those they disagree with continue to go scot-free?
The film fraternity has protested the attack against Bhansali but when, next time, they are subjected to such violent intimidation, will they fight back or tamely capitulate? One thing is certain: the reflex resort to violence by groups like the Karni Sena, emboldened by the cynical collusion of the state, seriously impairs India’s democratic credentials.

The writer is an author and member of JD(U)